If you’ve read my posts about India, you probably know already how much I dislike this country. It’s true, I don’t like India. BUT, there’s one thing I have to say.
There, I had one of the most grueling yet most beautiful and fascinating road trips – the Jammu-Srinagar-Leh-Manali circuit across the Himalayas.
This is the journey that made me fall in love with what I think are the most peaceful parts of India, and because of that, I have to admit that there’s just a little bit of India that I do like and enjoy.
I started this trip from Delhi, making a quick stop at Amritsar to jump to McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama lives and where the official road trip began.
From McLeod, it was a 7 hours public bus to Jammu, where as soon as I jumped off the bus I got offered (in a rushed and exhausting manner like in any typical Indian city) an 8 hours jeep ride to Srinagar for 500 rupees (which was considerably cheap compared to the price of the bus).
I was tired already, of course, but I had no business in Jammu, so I decided to endure the back-to-back rides.
There’s one thing you need to know about Indian schedules; if they say it’s going to take 5 hours, it’s really going to take 7 hours. They say 8; it is 9 to 10, and so on.
Once in Srinagar, I swear I felt like I left India. Where were the annoying rickshaw drivers? Where were the beggars? Why didn’t I have 50 sweating bodies jumping and trampling all over me? This was Srinagar.
To this day, Srinagar is my favorite place in India. It is situated in the Kashmir Valley and lies on the banks of the Jhelum River. I believe the most iconic things about Srinagar are the Dal and Nagin lakes, colored and populated by their houseboats.
Just laying eyes over it I could see why they have called it the “Venice of the East” and “Kashmiri Venice”. People row peacefully on the lake, hopping from houseboat to houseboat at a slow pace.
The silence made a deafening appearance for the first time in my stay in India. I could hear the sound of the water as people rowed by, I could hear the birds, the slow hum, the lack of motorboats, the leaves on the trees as they moved with the wind. Just, everything.
After a couple of days of absorbing this peaceful environment, it was time to take the road again on a slightly more challenging journey – the road from Srinagar to Leh. This was going to be an intensely adventurous road trip.
While Srinagar is my favorite place, the Srinagar-Leh road is the most beautiful I’ve taken so far (this road is open only from early June to November due to its high altitude and weather conditions).
It was 15 hours+ on a jeep (costing about 1,500 rupees)… a loooong ass ride… but the scenery and the nomadic scenes I saw along were beyond the level of beauty and authenticity I was expecting – oh, and not to mention the adventure.
The 434 km journey started –very early in the morning– with a simple introduction of tall mountains surrounding the lakes, then a few snow-capped mountains, and then the iconic unpaved, bumpy road lined by steep mountain walls on one side and cliffs on the other.
As if the road was not bad and narrow enough, we had to maneuver (the driver, of course) the tight space with the hundreds of construction and cargo trucks that transit this road every day (why is this a cargo route, again?).
I swear there were moments when I felt we would just fall off the cliff as the driver literally drove inches away from the edge.
Since I was next to the window, I would open it and look down just to see a car tire flirting with the last few inches of irregular road and hundreds of feet of precipice below. Won’t lie… got scared a few times.
And of course, what can you expect when hundreds of cargo trucks ride this challenging road? Breakdowns! At least two of them broke down, leaving everyone behind them stranded until they were either fixed or towed by the military.
If that is not enough, landslides are a common sight during monsoon season, which I so “cleverly” chose to visit India.
Again, we had to either wait for the military to clean it a bit or take the chances of riding over the debris, hoping it would not slide all the way down with us. This part, on the other hand, I found really exciting.
After a few landslides and truck breakdown dramas, I found myself in the middle of nowhere – almost literally. Ahead of me was a serpentine road winding up and down the Himalayas; behind, the same.
To the sides, there were more mountains, as far as my eyes could see. Snow sprinkled here and there the top of the mountains while green grassy fields served as a more welcoming contrast at the bottom.
There was no sign of civilization. Still, this road has its own political tensions. The road skirts the Line of Actual Control between India and Pakistan, which on certain occasions has made it the target of Pakistani shelling and crossfire.
We continued our way and not much farther –out of nowhere– thousands of goats blocked the road, and as we got closer they began to surround the jeep as If they didn’t mind us being there.
They were not there by themselves; nomads were walking them, maybe to the nearest town for commercial purposes?… I’m not sure. This scene happened over a dozen times for the next two to three hours. It was like an exodus – as if nomad families were making their way to their new temporary destination.
The farther we went, the more I questioned myself, “where are they walking to?!”. There was nothing for miles, and miles, and miles!
We then passed through Drass, supposedly the second coldest inhabited place on earth (just the thought of it makes me shiver), followed by probably one of the most dramatic parts of this road – the ascent up the 11,500 ft. (3,505 m.) high Zoji-la, the pass in the Great Himalayan Wall that serves as the gateway to Ladakh.
A nomad camp here and a nomad camp there sprinkled the green, flat grassy fields that eventually became dry sandy fields.
In a matter of hours, we crossed from the forest to snow-capped mountains, to green pastures, to the desert – all encompassed in the Himalayas.
There was not much more to do for the rest of the day than to keep enjoying the dry scenery as it shone brightly with the sunset’s golden rays of light; slowly turning darker until no light could be seen, except for the full moon and the jeep’s headlights.
In just a few more hours, I would be arriving at Leh, the former capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh.
The road trip continues on the next post.
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What a shame that you dislike India, I found it to be such an extraordinary country! What amaaaazing photos!!! I’m dying to visit Srinagar!
As you know, India is not my favorite, but Srinagar was amazing!
I actually enjoyed India during my last visit to Delhi.. but hope to get the places mentioned above!!
Yes, you should visit the Himalayas… its a beautiful region!
How did you manage to book the jeep from Srinagar to leh? Is it easy once you are in Srinagar or do you have to do so beforehand?
Hi Rachael –
It is very easy once you are in Srinagar. Just walk around or ask at your guesthouse and you’ll find several options. You can book it the day before or right in the morning before leaving.
I did this trip in 2009 from Delhi-to-McLeod Ganj, Dhamramsala – to – Mandi (where you can visit the cave of Guru Padmasambava/or Guru Rinpoche, the Guru who brought Buddhism to Tibet, Leh, Nepal, Bhutan), – to Leh.
I agree that drive is dangerous but also the most beautiful I’ve seen so far in my travels.
I hope you can make it to Nepal where you can see the highest points of the Himalaya Range, and then maybe cross the border into Tibet, (stop by Kyirong, the place where the word Shangri La originated based on my research) and then on wards to Lhasa (means City of Gods in Tibetan). Maybe from there, cross the Gobi to Mongolia and Central Asia to the “Stan” nations, and follow the Silk Route.
Love your blog. Thanks for sharing.
Do you have pictures of Leh? You should share because it is such a beautiful City. I felt like i stepped back 500 years into the past when I was there. Amazing place. Love it.
Did you trek to Triund and later ?
Its fun ?
I saw other posts of you on India. You seem to have a biased view. Yeah there is widespread poverty but your sarcastic comments are never ending about India and its people..
Srinagar – Leh highway is a paradise for bikers, I believe you might have seen many bikers on the way with heavy luggage on the motorcycles. If you really want to enjoy the beauty of this route, I invite you for a motorcycle trip.
Ride of a lifetime! Next time make it Manali to Leh, and on motorcycle!
Thank you so much for bringing your experience on road trip to Leh from Srinagar, i will be doing leh trip in coming months.
You must have notices bike Royal Enfiled through out your journey. That bike is very famous among indian bikers who seek bike road trip.
Also you must try some treks in India as they have very alluring views in day light and start gazing at night is simply magical.